Only a few days ago, Aberdeen’s heart for the battle was up for debate but last night they made sure to cash in on another Celtic slip-up to move to within four points of the league leaders.
It was their inability to kill off the game that came back to haunt the Pittodrie side at the weekend and cost them the chance to capitalise on Celtic’s dropped points. Maybe the realisation of how these things can come back to bite his team prompted Derek McInnes’s fury last night. One goal up, despite having one ruled out, they thought they had doubled their lead before half-time, only to have the officials intervene once again.
Graeme Shinnie was booked for diving, sparing Gavin Gunning that ignominy and his colleague Paul Dixon’s blushes after his attempted clearance was sliced into his own net. But the frustration and sense of injustice was too much for the furious Aberdeen manager who was dismissed to the stand for the remainder of the tussle.
It was a “goal” that might have snuffed out United’s enthusiasm. A side that had appeared doomed not so long ago, went into the encounter having lost just one of the previous five games, while Aberdeen had been less than clinical when it came to converting recent opportunities to close the gap on the league leaders and galvanise their own title aspirations.
United made some early intrusions into their guests’ half, but there is still a sloppiness and frailty to their play that served as a constant reminder of their ongoing struggle to avoid the drop. Slips, slack passes and wild shots meant that they never really tested Scott Brown.
Not until the 14th minute, when Aberdeen failed to get rid of John Rankin’s cross into the box and it dropped to Gavin Gunning, but the defender could not get any real power behind his shot and it was gratefully gathered.
Instead of inspiring United, it was Aberdeen who edged up through the gears. In the 21st minute they showed more intent than they had mustered in the opening period, when Peter Pawlett slipped a pass into Simon Church, who was poaching a yard or so from Eiji Kawashima’s line, but the ball was nicked off his toes just in time to deny him the shot.
Church was becoming an increasingly notable nuisance to the home rearguard. In the 27th minute he did succeed in getting the ball into the net but, erring on the side of United in a marginal call, the assistant referee had his flag raised for offside by the time the frontman peeled away in celebration.
Church had the perfect response a minute or two later, though. Having kept United pretty much penned in, Shay Logan whipped in a cross and Church was again given space at the back post, dipping to glance a header home to give Aberdeen the lead.
Nine minutes before the break, that advantage should have doubled, when Gunning brought down Shinnie. There was no immediate whistle but when Dixon’s mishit clearance found his own net, the goal was chopped off, the yellow card was shown to Shinnie and United got the free-kick.
It gave United hope for the second half and Henri Anier came on to bolster the attack as the home side battled for any share of the points.While Aberdeen had continued to search for the deciding goal, with Church failing to control another great opening, they were almost undone in the final stages when Coll Donaldson and then Gunning forced important saves from Brown. He stood up to the efforts, though, and with the Aberdeen fans cheering the result from Celtic Park, he made it clear that they were determined to see this one out and prolong those celebrations.
Referee: B Madden
Dundee United: Kawashima, Donaldson, Durnan, Gunning, Spittal, Paton, Rankin, Dixon (Erskine 79), Fraser, McKay (Ofere 86), Sinama Pongolle (Anier 45). Subs: Dillon, Knoyle, Dow, Zwick.
Aberdeen: Brown, Logan, Taylor, Considine, Shinnie, Jack, Robson (Storie 90), Pawlett (Reynolds 62), McLean, McGinn (Flood 82), Church. Subs: Smith, Collin, Wright, Ross.